Empire of Light – Frugal and Pale (2.5*)

Empire of Light is a visual and sonic delight but leaves you empty. It portrays a May - November romance, set in a 1980s coastal movie theater. Needs much more chemistry between the characters and with the audience.
Empire of Light
Empire of Light

Empire of Light – Snapshot

Empire of Light is a visual and sonic delight, but leaves you empty.  Mendes needs more work at script writing and, if he’s going to do romantic dramas, needs to develop more chemistry between the characters and with the audience. (2.5*)

Where to Watch:

Stream: Hulu/Max

Rent: Google/Apple/Vudu ($4)

Empire of Light – The Oscar Buzz 

Oscar Nominations:

Cinematography (Roger Deakins)

Empire of Light is infused with novel camera tricks which, in part, give the film its technical thrills.  Deakins’ use of lights, buildings, streets, and objects to frame his subjects is terrific.  Some of the most thrilling images are at the beginning of the film where he visually documents the “Empire” cinema theater.  Cast in a repeating palette of yellows, golds, and oranges, he uses color as well as framing to paint the emotional picture.  

Deakins, older than I am  (meaning dirt) is no stranger to the Oscars.  He won the Oscar for his work on Blade Runner 2049 and, with Mendes as director, 1917.  Before that he received 13 other nominations for movies including such personal favorites as Sicario, Prisoners, Skyfall, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men. 

Largely British, the crew and cast Director Sam Mendes has assembled have accumulated an impressive list of Oscar nominations and several wins.  It is instructive that despite the list of Oscar talent, it wasn’t nominated in any other category.  The music is fine, editing adequate, Colman and Firth do serviceable jobs in their roles, and the costumes seem appropriate enough.  (I guess that shows how old I am now since I was in my thirties during this “period piece”- See Special Mention).  There is a reason, I think, why Oscar nominations often tend to cluster around a particular movie – talent usually likes to associate with talent. In this case, though, the associations didn’t congeal into a winning product.  Other Oscar nominees include:

Director (Mendes): 1917 / American Beauty (WINNER)

Writer (Mendes): 1917

Composers (Reznor/Ross): Social Network (WINNER) / Mank

Editor (Smith): Dunkirk / The Dark Knight / The Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Costumes (Byrne): Emma / Mary Queen of Scots / Elizabeth: The Golden Age (WINNER)

Acting (Colman): The Lost Daughter / The Father / The Favourite (WINNER Leading)

Acting (Firth) : The King’s Speech (WINNER Leading) / A Single Man

Empire of Light – The Movie’s Family Tree

The Following Movies Share Talent with This One (and if you like these films, you might like this one):

Skyfall (12) : Director (Mendes); Cinematographer (Deakins)

Spectre (15)/Revolutionary Road (08) : Director (Mendes)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (11) / The Killer (23) : Composers (Reznor/Ross)

Banshees of Inisherin (22) / No Time To Die (21) : Production Design (Tildesley)

1917 (19) / Mary Poppins Returns (18) : Acting (Firth)

Empire of Light shares talent and characteristics with all the films listed in the Oscar section, but also with those listed above that are particularly noteworthy or recent.  With such an amazing community of talent it is hard to understand why the movie didn’t do better at the Oscars or with viewers and critics.  I will have more to say about that below.

Empire of Light – What Others Think

Not very many people have rated Empire of Light, but those that have ranked it down towards the bottom of 2023’s Oscar nominated movies, tied with Causeway.  The reason, simply, is that the story just isn’t compelling and the character development is underdone.

Critics are with the audiences on this one, placing this movie 23 out of 25 general interest movies, just ahead of the poorly received Blonde.  To a person, critics faulted the script while lauding the technical attributes of Empire of Light. Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert) notes “The way (Mendes’s) script treats mental illness and racism feels insincere.”  While later he notes that it is “an easy film to let wash over you in terms of sight and sound…This is a beautifully made film.  The problem is that it’s hollow.”  Matt Zoller Seitz (also RogerEbert ) summarizes “The storytelling is jumbled”.  Later “There isn’t a dull or purely functional composition in the film, nor is there one that tries so hard to be weighty that it crushes Mendes’ wilting flower characters.”  ReelViews’ James Berardinelli finds “All the feeling comes from the background; the foreground is sterile…Mendes waffles and it leaves viewers confused about who the story is about.”

In the end, the film falls flat.  Combining both viewer and critic ratings, it comes in, tied with Babylon, just three movies from the bottom.  This is a case where I think the critics, and the viewing audience, have it right – it is technically intriguing, but fails on the character and story development.

Empire of Light – Special Mention

Period Piece”? – In doing my research for this movie I ran across some comments that called  Empire of Light a “Period Piece”. That triggered all kinds of bells and whistles for me because, using the standard, Webster, definition of the term, it means a work of art that represents or illustrates a particular “historical period”.  Am I supposed to understand that the 1980s, when I was a young man in my thirties – living in New York City and on the ascendance in my career and personal life – is actually a period in human history now?

So I did some research on “historical periods” and found that the characterization of a particular time period has multiple definitions depending on place and time.  There appears to be more agreement on things in the remote past, but it gets confusing the closer you get to now.  For example, the 1980s, in the U.S., might be characterized as the “Reagan Era” with its economic boom times and identifying “government is the problem!”  I suppose it had its own cultural identifiers, like disco music, supermodels, the beginnings of the internet and personal computing devices, among many things, but does it really constitute a unique “historical period”?

The National Park Service defines an “historic artifact” as anything that is older than 50 years.  In fact, by law, they are required to conserve and protect anything older than that even if it wasn’t part of the natural environment.  I remember encountering graffiti on a cave wall that NPS could not remove because it was thought to be “historic”.  So using even the NPS definition, the 1980s aren’t quite historic.

Perhaps it’s just the angst of an old man in his seventies, but if it takes place during my life time, is it really old enough to be a “period piece”?  Or are these writers just trying to make me feel old?  The good thing about all this, I hope, is that at some point people will be looking back on today as the “Trump Era”!  Wonder how that will be viewed…

Empire of Light – Michael’s Moments

Empire of Light is a collection of very talented people waiting for a script to challenge them.  As the Oscar Buzz section itemized, the crew and cast for this film have an amazing set of credentials but the film illustrates how critical it is to have a good screenplay.  Technically superb and with heartfelt performances from both the leading characters, the script doesn’t provide the characters with enough depth and the story seems ambivalent about where it wants them to go.

Reportedly,  Sam Mendes wrote the main character based on his own mother.  And that may have been his biggest mistake.  Parents are, at their essence, somewhat impenetrable.  They have such complex roles to play in raising children that their personalities can often become, to their children, undifferentiated and opaque.  Children never fully understand who their parents are and, I suspect, that is probably a good thing.  Parents are at once supposed to be sources of nurturing, guidance, and sometimes unexpected discipline.  Trying to merge all those influences into a coherent image of a real person can be difficult if not impossible.

So it is with Empire of Light’s main character Hilary (Olivia Colman), who reportedly might be Mendes’s projection of his mother.  Portrayed as being in and out of mental health services, she works in a 1980’s movie theater, back when they were a big thing.  In fact, this theater is the site for the gala grand opening of Chariots of Fire, one of the defining movies of the decade.  Hilary’s life is rather unfulfilling: she takes tickets, sells popcorn, and, too frequently, provides sexual relief to the theater manager, Ellis (Colin Firth).  A new employee arrives, Stephen (Micheal Ward), and it is her job to train him.  In his company, Hilary gains a new understanding of herself as they engage in a May – November romance consummated in the closed-upper-floors of the huge complex.  Stephen, not just young but also Black, has his own issues, and their relationship does not go perfectly well (umm, maybe not so surprising.)

At the end of Empire of Light, though, there just isn’t enough personality growth.  What happened as a result of this semi-torrid affair?  Did it have any lasting impact, or was it just a winter thing, to be forgotten as fast as it arose? The script doesn’t give us enough insight into the characters to fully understand what is significant about this chain of events.

The problem from Mendes’ script comes from two sources.  First, this is Mendes’s first attempt at writing a movie script.  (He wrote 1917 with another writer and it really wasn’t about intimate character development anyway). But more importantly, perhaps, is that he probably shouldn’t have tried to model a character after his own mother.  The mother-son relationship is, in my opinion, much too complex for either person to understand well enough to communicate in any real way, especially in a work of fiction.

Some good-old British acting, terrific settings, and fabulous camera work can’t save a script that, like the disco scene, hits you with sights and sounds but ultimately leaves you empty.  (2.5*)

Empire of Light
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